Sunday, 26 April 2009

You’ve come a long way, baby

As difficult as it may be to believe, the baby in this pic is the strapping lad below.

My son turns 19 today. Nineteen years ago today, at more or less this time, he was in an incubator, an interesting shade of blue, and a paediatrician was hovering over him, expressing fears as to the extent of the brain damage he might have suffered from lengthy hours of oxygen deprivation.

Today he is, quite evidently, alive and well, and flying through a science degree at a nearby university.

I didn’t discover I was pregnant with my son – my first child – until several months in. Then, in a belated flurry of fear that I would bear an infant with two heads, I stopped smoking, taking recreational drugs and drinking anything alcoholic I could lay my hands on, and started eating ice cream. I put on 30kg during my pregnancy (as is clear by my generous double chin in the pic) and tipped the scale at an impressive (even if I say so myself) 100kg when I arrived at the hospital to deliver.

Not that I intended delivering in a hospital. I was a good hippie, and had laid in a stock of lollipops (for ‘dry mouth syndrome’ from all that ‘candle breathing’ I’d learnt about in birthing classes) and a Scrabble set for all the hours I’d be waiting around with nothing to do while in labour.

Which I finally went into, two weeks after my due date, on the morning of the 18th of April when I was at a local publishing house, sorting out transparencies for a book I was working on. I went home, timed my contractions (hours apart), sat about reading a magazine for a while, then, a few hours later, thought, Wow, this really hurts!

I phoned my then-husband (who, by some stroke of luck, happened to be in the country at the time – his hobby then was travelling) and instructed him to come home. By the time he arrived, several more hours later, I was beginning to froth at the mouth. ‘Have a lollipop, dear,’ he said, and I snarled, ‘Take me to a hospital. Now!

I will draw a veil over the hours that followed, but will say this: when, around 9pm, 12 hours into a ‘back’ labour that had become so painful I would willingly have had my fingernails pulled out in preference, I screamed, ‘BRING! ME! DRUGS!!’, people jumped. And when that epidural pumped into my lower spine, I finally knew there was a god, and he was called The Anaesthesiologist.

So I was a bit miffed when, nearing 2am, my doctor arrived, trailing wine fumes (he’d been at a dinner party) and, on examining me, slurred, ‘Shit, I think this baby’s dead.’

Several nurses were summonsed to help transfer my gigantic bulk from the birthing table onto a trolley in order to wheel me into an operating theatre for an emergency Caesarean. I remember giggling dozily as one of them, helping to heft me, put her back out and staggered around cursing.

And then there were bright lights and quite a lot of blood and a nasty period of freezing cold (when, I learnt afterwards, I went into shock) – and then, mercifully, a big fat shot of morphine that cheered me up no end. So when the paediatrician said, ‘I’m afraid you’ve given birth to a lizard,’ I just smiled and said, ‘Okay, fine, whatever.’

Obviously he didn’t really say I’d given birth to a lizard, but my poor baby, in foetal distress (which means, basically, he was ingesting his own shit in utero) and starved of oxygen (the umbilical cord was wrapped five times, ligature-like, round his neck) for over four hours while my doctor ate, drank and made merry, wasn’t in good shape by the time he arrived in the world.

Not that I knew it. All was fabulously blurry until about 9 the next morning, when the very concerned paediatrician arrived to have a few quiet words with me. And – in the way of new mothers – all remained fabulously blurry (mainly from lack of sleep) until about three years later, when my son finally – finally! – said his first intelligible word. (It was ‘Bator’, which happened to be the name of the dog that lived next door. We broke out the champagne.)

My son has never been a voluble type although anyone who’s been trapped with him in a corner of a pub and subjected to all he knows about science-fantasy, Wicca and genetics will testify (probably somewhat exhaustedly) to the fact that he can speak when he wants to. And if indeed there was brain damage, his grey matter has done a fine job of compensating.

Happy birthday, son! You’ve come a long way, baby!

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When parents snap: kicking your kids to the kerb

I laughed my head off when I read this story about a mother who kicked her squabbling kids out the car and was subsequently charged with ‘endangering the welfare of a child’ and locked up for the night. The 10-year-old child was, according to the report, ‘very upset and emotional’ after her mother, clearly frustrated beyond endurance by her kids’ behaviour, left her at the roadside and ‘fled’ (yes, ‘fled’!).

My late mother – a woman known and much loved for her patient, kind and rational character – did exactly the same thing to my brother and me when we were, like the kids in the story above, 10 and 12 respectively. My brother, who was a bit of a bully, had just pulled my hair so hard it brought tears to my eyes, and I, of course, had screamed my lungs out.

My mother braked, stopped, leaned over, opened the back door and said, ‘Get out.'

We did, giggling and nudging and jostling each other – obviously, Mom was just trying to scare us.

But she wasn’t. She really had had enough. She drove off and left us there.

We’d been on our way to a shopping centre in a neighbouring suburb (probably, again as in the above story, about 5km from home) when this happened, and it took my brother and me a good hour to walk home. By the time we got there, footsore, we felt chastised enough to apologise to my Mom, who’d got home before us.

My mother would never, ever have knowingly put me or any of my siblings in danger – but she was human, and her reaction on that day showed that. I daresay she was every bit as ‘upset and emotional’ as the 10-year-old in the above report. Although I clearly recall the feeling of utter and total disbelief as my mother ‘fled’ from us, I don’t think I suffered any lasting trauma – I remember this story with fondness, not anxiety.

My father’s way of dealing with bickering kids in the back seat of the car was quite different: keeping his right hand on the wheel and never taking his eyes from the road, he’s reach behind with his left hand and flail around violently until he made contact with someone – it didn’t matter who or what body part, all that counted was that someone got slapped hard enough to stop the fighting. (No doubt, today, he’d be liable for a charge of grievous bodily harm or impairment of a minor’s dignity or some such.)

I’m so glad I’m not a kid today. At least I got to experience the heady joy and anarchic danger of running with scissors.

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Saturday, 25 April 2009

Waiting for the fat man to dance

Voting in South Africa’s general election is over and all went fairly smoothly. I marked my crosses (one for national government, the other for provincial) at the community clinic in the small town of Riebeek Kasteel, and there was a grand party atmosphere – drum majorettes from the local school were out in force (mainly milling about, but looking festive nonetheless), the queues were short, the procedure well organised and relatively painless (if you don’t count the fact that the man with the thumb ink did such a good job on mine that it looks like it was hit with a hammer), and everyone was in a merry mood.

I can’t pretend my heart didn’t sink yesterday when, during counting, the ANC vote rose briefly above the critical two-thirds threshold. It’s not so much they I think they’re actually going to do anything drastic with the power that would confer (although anything’s possible and some are probable), it’s more a psychological barrier: with fully a third of South African voters not ‘giving their mandate’ (eurgh; political terminology is so damned PC) to the ANC, Jacob Zuma might think twice about getting too big for his kanga, never mind calling for his machine gun. (Might.)

Of course, the ANC was quick to point out that although they got over two-thirds (69.7%) in a previous election, they didn’t use this power to change the Constitution. Although actually they did. They passed an outrageous Constitutional amendment in 2002 to allow parties to ‘cross the floor’, a truly cynical bit of political machination. There was also talk, not all that long ago, of bringing state organs (including those guaranteed by the Constitution, like the attorneys general and the Reserve Bank) under party control.

No matter! What’s important is that they didn’t get two-thirds – and that the DA, headed up by Helen ‘Godzilla’ Zille, my personal hero (and, incidentally, winner of the 2008 World Mayor award, chosen from 50 deserving candidates from every part of the globe), came away with an awesome near-17% tally. Way to go, Helen!

All that remains now is for Zuma to dance victoriously about the stage in a way that when I do it makes my teenagers cover their eyes in embarrassment, but apparently appeals enormously to almost – but not quite – 66.6% of adult South Africans. I think instead of watching the news tonight, I’ll get a DVD.

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Sleeping in...

People say my animals are spoiled. I wonder why.

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Friday, 24 April 2009

Looking at your own self

It was entertaining for me to be reminded, recently, by my friend Johann (a great sounding-board for honesty, unwelcome though it sometimes is), how awful it is to hear one’s own voice recorded. In playback, I always listen for a few moments, appalled, to someone rather silly and very nasal spouting fast-forward nonsense, before realising it’s me. Then I want to die.

Every bit as bad is being confronted with photographs of yourself. Someone once said to me, on looking at some pictures, ‘You’re better when you move.’

Well. Yes.

One of the very nasteh things about being a writer is having, from time to time, to submit some sort of witty, pithy 100-word précis of yourself that won’t make you sound like a blithering idiot or, worse, a pretentious twat, and will tell readers everything they need to know, and what you want them to know about you.

That’s bad enough. (At left is my favourite. I just made it all up.)

Worse is submitting a photograph.

Writers are writers, and not actors or politicians or, say, preachers, because generally they’re not keen about being physically in the public eye. Perhaps there’s an element of cowardice about this, yes – that’s not what I’m debating now (although I’m willing to, with anyone who wants to pick an argument – with the exception of my friend, madly popular author and irksomely successful media slut Tony Park). What I am saying is that writers write, mainly, because they’re happier about what they ‘say’ than what they ‘do’.

So submitting a pic is always, for a writer, a matter of some discomfort.

This pic, for one of the very first articles I ever had published, was taken by my friend Michele. It was early morning, we were getting kids to school (we had, between us, three under 2 at the time), and she stood me up against a wall and said, ‘Smile!’ I couldn’t quite; this was the best I could manage.

These (left and below right) were taken by professional photographers, paid for by the publications who insisted on them. I particularly remember the colour one because I took my daughter (then about 4) with me to the studios, where I was transformed beyond all recognition by a genuinely frightening woman. Once this unrelenting makeup artist had been hard at work on me for about 15 minutes, my littlie toddled over, checked me out and said, ‘Wow, Mom, you look so pretty! All that red stuff that’s usually on your face is gone!’ (And they say pancake makeup is bad for the skin!)

I now write a column for When the editor asked for a pic, I asked Johann to take it (Johann quadtruples as a photographer). I emailed it through but it wasn’t used for my first few columns. When I asked why, the editor said, ‘The quality wasn’t good enough.’

I tackled Johann about this: why wasn’t he employing high-quality equipment?? He smirked and said, ‘I was.’ And when I looked at the pics again I had to admit they weren’t too terribly attractive. Hey, they were ME!

So I had Johann do a whole new set. This time, I put on so much makeup (I’ve been under the sponge and brush; I’ve learnt a few things) that I felt like a porcelain doll. By the time we were ready to take the pictures I could feel the base cracking and my eyelashes were starting to shed. But apparently these were acceptable.

Except I don’t think they are, really. I think I look like a barely sane hippie crystal-ball reader who could conceivably snack on children (which is, incidentally, what I’m writing about).

So tonight, with my kids safely ensconced and my housemate out getting pissed, I thought I’d take the opportunity to use my new camera to take some pics of myself that I actually like – this, after all, is the bliss of owning one’s own digital camera with a ‘self-snap’ setting, is it not?

But – and here I finally get to the point of this very long and admittedly massively indulgent post – I can’t find the blasted thing!

The options for its whereabouts are too many and varied to even investigate (including, but not restricted to, (a) stealing by Monster Baby and depositing at bottom of garden; (b) expropriating by teenage daughter for purposes of ‘interesting’ self-portraits to put on Facebook; (c) borrowing by housemate to snap drunk mates at pub).

So, for now, I’m stuck with being a hippie in a headscarf.

* Question: Do readers really want to know what writers look like? If so, why?

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Thursday, 23 April 2009

Save Susan Boyle's eyebrows

With reference to the comment and link provided by Juno on my last post about Susan (below), Tina Brown's prognosis for Susan's eyebrows concerns me.

As a woman who has shaved her legs once in her life (when I was 17 and felt peer-pressured) and her armpits ditto (when I got married in a sleeveless dress, and my mother insisted I 'make a bit of an effort, dear'), I LOVE Susan's eyebrows.

They are exactly as they were made, and they frame Susan's unusual face in exactly the way they need to.

PLEASE let the powers-that-be leave Susan's eyebrows alone. If it's time, as Tina says, for getting over ourselves (and, boy, is it!), it's also time for seeing beauty in a new, kinder, wider, more humane light. There are thousands of ways to be beautiful.

For salma readers who were not conscious in the 80s - for whatever reason - here's cover girl Brooke Shields bucking convention. How gorgeous are her eyebrows?? (Sadly, 'beauty' was brought to bear: she plucked them in the '90s.)

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Susan Boyle: my failsafe pick-me-up

The name Susan Boyle meant nothing to me – like most of the world – until recently. And even when I heard on the news about this singing sensation (she’s an unemployed 47-year-old from some obscure Scottish town) I didn’t feel driven to personally view her performance – I mean, just how fabulously can one person sing, really?

But a group of us sitting around the lunch table on the weekend began discussing Susan and since I was, apparently, the only person on the planet who hadn’t watched the YouTube clip of her surprise success on a British reality talent show, my housemate Dean went off and downloaded it for me. That done, he sat me down in front of his computer, put his earphones on me, and left me to watch it.

Now, I am not a big weeper. I refuse point-blank to blub in movies, for instance, that are made specifically to get your tearducts flowing (I remember being accused by some classmates, at the age of 12, of being ‘hard’ because I couldn’t raise a sniffle at the end of the uber-tearjerker The Champ); if I hurt myself, I don’t weep, I scream; grief makes me mutely dry-eyed. In fact, the only emotion guaranteed to get me crying is frustration.

So you can imagine my alarm when, as Susan launched into the finale of her song, ‘I Dream a Dream’, I found myself drizzing lavishly. And even after I’d removed the headphones and returned to the table to report back, I couldn’t stop blubbing.

It was as ridiculous as it was inexplicable (although CNN correspondent Peter Bregman posits some interesting theories here).

Anyway, this morning I had a bad start to the day, to do with a morally ambiguous estate agent (although I suppose that’s a tautology) and quite a large sum of money. A stand-up argument during which the estate agent insisted she’d told me various things she hadn’t, and not told me various things she had, left me feeling furious and helpless – and weepy with frustration.

So when I got home, I thought I’d just cheer myself up by making myself cry to Susan Boyle. And I feel much better now.

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Sunday, 19 April 2009

Jessie Duarte goes bananas as she savages a Times journalist

Ill-mannered ANC spin-doctor Jessie Duarte has set a new personal best when it comes to hostility, paranoia and sheer nastiness. When Sunday Times reporter Philani Nombembe phoned her with innocent questions about how the ANC is using the Internet to communicate with voters, she reacted like a maddened wasp, aiming vicious stings at the reporter, the Sunday Times, the 'third force', the media in general and - surprise - white people.

The conversation starts off innocuously enough, with the journalist asking about online communication. Duarte tells him about ANC blogs.

'Does the ANC president also get to answer... ' the reporter begins.

'Yes, he's got his own blog,' answers Duarte, and gives details. Then, a second later, she adds, 'But yes, he does read it, he does, he does.'

A venomous pause. Then she snaps, 'You know, he can actually read, contrary to your opinion.'

Reporter: Ok. Er, okay, does....

Duarte: How can you ask me a question like that, you know, 'Does the ANC president actually read?' [The reporter asked no such thing.] Good God! Can you guys just get a life now?

Reporter: No, I understand what you say...

Duarte: No, you must get a life! Your newspaper must get a life. You're terribly classist, and if you were not black, I would say you were a racist... but well, I suppose you could be a racist, even if you were black like me. But you've got a very bad attitude... your newspaper has. But seriously speaking now, this man, whether you like it or not, is going to be the next president of the country, and actually we're not so concerned what the Times thinks. We know where you come from, and we know where you're going to.

Then she calms down and offers a few insights about Facebook and blogging. Then:

Reporter: But I hope you understand where I'm coming from...

Duarte: No, listen, I know who you work for. Look, you guys, there's no soap that will wash a Times journalist in my eyes.

Reporter: That's very unfortunate.

Duarte: No, it's not unfortunate, it's reality. I think that if you are a South African who wants to see transformation then you've got to join in the fight for it, not become part of the, um, er, third force. But you all sound exactly the same, so there's no point.

She wishes him a good day, and he asks if he can call her again.

Duarte: Yes you can, except if you insult my president, I'll just cut the phone down on you. I mean, how do I know you can read? You are probably one of those people who might be able to be a whizzkid on the Internet, but maybe you can't read at all, you know. So I don't ask you questions like that.

Reporter: [muffled protests]

Duarte: I mean, the fact that you're a journalist doesn't make you a genius. [Guffaw]. You're just a journalist.


It's not as if I need another reason not to vote for the ANC in Wednesday's election, but this conversation signs, seals and delivers my resolve never, ever to vote for this party again.

This person is the official spokesperson for the party that's going to govern our country, and this is how she responds to the polite enquiries of a newspaper journalist?

Why have a spokesperson at all? Why doesn't the ANC just refer all media queries to a random toddler at a local crèche? In fact, you'd get more logic, decorum and sense out of a hungry, tired two-year-old who's just been bludgeoned with a wooden block than you could ever get out of Ms Duarte.

There are dark clouds buzzing over the future of the media in this country.

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Friday, 17 April 2009

Hankering after the good old days when you could actually use a Lion match to light a cigarette

It’s entirely possible that hard living and hedonism have jaded my tastebuds, so I’ve accepted that Wilson’s Toffees and Sugus and Fizz Pops don’t do quite the same fandango on my tongue as they did when I was 12.

(Remember the ‘costumes of the world’ theme cards in Sugus? My illicit favourite were the Greek men in skirts – ironic, really, when you consider my Scots forebears dressed similarly – but I seem to remember the Greek men also had pompoms somewhere, like on their shoes or on their heads?)

But WTF has happened to Lion matches?

I don’t know how many you get in a box (actually, I do – I’ve just counted: 30; and people say I don’t use my time productively!) but this I can tell you: it takes ONE AND A HALF boxes of Lion matches to light ONE pack of 20 cigarettes.

I know this because I am a compulsive smoker while scribbling. (In defence of my dirty habit, I seldom actually smoke the cigarettes I light; they mainly lie smouldering in the ashtray while I attack the keyboard, polluting the lungs of all around me with their secondary toxins.) So in one night of furious output I may go through even TWO packs – that’s FORTY cigarettes.

But I will also go through THREE boxes of Lion matches.

That’s, let’s see, 90 matches to light 40 cigarettes.

You see where I’m going here, don’t you?

I take out a cigarette and I take out a match. I light the match; it flares and immediately goes out. I light a second match; it flares and immediately goes out. By now my cigarette is getting nastily damp in my mouth and I’m thinking ‘WTF has happened to Lion matches?’ I light a third match; it flares, does something inexplicably flamboyant, and the burning head leaps off and either (a) lands on my lap and burns a hole in my pants; or (b) disappears worryingly from sight and is found, after much frantic scrabbling, smouldering in the carpet; or (c) incandesces alarmingly in midair and then enters a parallel universe, never to be found again.

By this stage I’m cursing loudly and my housemate Dean will emerge from his room armed with a Bic. ‘Lion matches?’ he’ll say, with infinite understanding.

So it’s not only me.

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Thursday, 16 April 2009

A wine I really liked

Thanks, Ruth and Julien.

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Puppies: a once-in-a-lifetime experience

There’s a woman in our village who has six children and I’ve never really got, you know, why. I mean, any romantic illusions about the sanctity of childbirth and motherhood are so thoroughly ripped through their own bum by the time you’ve actually delivered your first child and then spent six weeks permanently awake that there should be Just No Way you’ll have another. (There is a very good reason, I believe, that most women in labour, no matter how meek under normal circumstances, scream at their husbands, ‘You fucker! If you ever come near me again I’ll tear your head off and feed it to a snake!’ It’s a moment of pure, sublime truth.)

I had my second child by mistake (these things happen). Boy, do I adore her; but, goodness me, did I not want to have her at the time. (And she richly rewarded my iffiness by being the most hellacious baby ever to have arrived on the planet.)

And now I have Puppy – the Monster Baby. She is, as all our children, furry or fleshy, always are, immensely beautiful and clever. But golly gosh is she driving me stark staring insane. There isn’t a thing left in the house that she hasn’t dismembered, left needle-sharp toothmarks in or eaten in its entirety (including most of a sofa); peed, pood or vomited on; dragged about until it’s utterly broken; or brought the rotten corpses of small dead garden creatures (moles, frogs, pigeons) in on to, to irredeemably sully and stain. She has worked out how to open most cupboards and by this sneaky expedient recently found my stash of Super-Cs, which she quickly guzzled before anyone could take them away, and then had such a sugar rush that she was actually moving a bit faster than the human eye could follow. I am still cleaning up the fallout from that little party.

She takes long, luxurious snoozes all day (in between terrorising the cats and the chickens, falling in the pool, tearing open the garbage bags and scattering scum the length and breadth of the garden, eating the washing straight off the line, finding ever more ingenious ways to escape the property and - her current favourite - getting up on the kitchen counter and hysterically gobbling everything in reach before she’s caught) and then bounces off the walls all night. When there isn’t a household cat shrieking in alarm because it’s been ambushed by her in frenzy of midnight playfulness, she’s barking joyously at 2am because she’s just so damned glad to be alive. (Which is when I put the pillow over my head and think grimly, ‘Not for long.’)

Thing is, it’s groovy to have a puppy. Sure, they’re cute – cute as hell. I can’t describe what happens to my heart when, in nanosecond moments, my Monster Baby lies still long enough for me to stroke her fuzzy head and look into her mischievous sparkly eyes; I adore her puppy gangliness and how that fact that she hasn’t yet quite figured out how all her legs work together makes her skid across the verandah with an expression of excited bewilderment on her whiskery face; I’m so proud of her when, at all of three months old, she sits with perfect obedience before she gets her dinner; and even if it is at 5am, I just dig waking up to a little being who is so excited to begin the day that she literally cannot wait.

But, god! FIVE AYE EM! Demolished sofas! Vomit on the kilims! Nothing put down on any surface safe for longer than it takes you to go and have a pee! Cellphones lost and found frustrating hours later, pitted with toothmarks, down the bottom of the garden! Hens so plain pissed-off they won’t lay! Cats who sneer at you even more than they did before Monster Baby arrived! Friends who put up with the mayhem for about 20 minutes and then say irritably, ‘Muriel, shouldn’t you be doing something about this dog?’

Well, yes. Not getting another one, that’s what I’m doing. Puppies, like children, have limited appeal. You can only have one once. Or, if you’re careless or naïve or just plain stupid, twice. But beyond that, it’s your funeral. (Or, at the very least, your sofa’s.)

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Thursday, 9 April 2009

Cainism: sibling rivalry gone wild

Some time ago my children returned from a weekend sojourn at their father’s house with visible flesh wounds. To their (very small, admittedly) credit, they told me what had happened when, with beetling eyebrows and pursed lips, I enquired.

‘We got into a fight,’ said my son, then 15. ‘I bit her.’

My daughter, then 14, said, ‘And I hit him in the nose.’

Their father and his girlfriend had gone out for dinner, leaving two apparently sane teenagers in the house, and in their absence pandemonium had broken loose. As much as I’d love to point fingers at their dad, in this case it wasn’t his fault: sibling rivalry can be a terrifying thing.

My own brother, then about 16, tried his very best to kill me when I was 15. Our parents weren’t there and an argument blew up about who had to walk to the café, four blocks away, to buy bread for lunch. I thought it was his turn; he thought it was mine. While I was happy to argue the point until I was blue in the face, my brother found a shorter path to this conclusion: he grabbed me by the throat and squeezed. By the time my uncle came in (by happy, for me, coincidence) I was unconscious and my brother still had my neck in a vice grip. He had to be physically pulled off me.

It’s not a pretty thing, sibling rivalry, but it’s been around forever. The term ‘Cainism’ for birds that kill their siblings in the nest is taken from the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, the first two children of Adam and Eve (a story that crops up in Islam and Judaism too) – when Abel’s sacrifice to God was accepted and Cain’s wasn’t, Cain was so incensed that he killed his brother.

My own children, now almost 18 and 19, are spending the next three days together, unsupervised, in my son’s flat in Stellenbosch. When I dropped them off there today, I said, ‘Please don’t spend all your money. And don’t kill each other, okay?’

They larfed.

I hope they’re still larfing tomorrow.

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Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Black teeth and hairy tongue

‘Pissed, are you?’

This was my alleged best friend, Johann, enquiring as to my state of mind after he arrived a few evenings ago and I had had one – one! – glass of red wine.

‘No, actually, I’m not,’ I said waspishly. I mean, really.

‘Your vocal chords say no, your teeth say yes,’ he said.

It’s too terribly irksome not to be able to drink in secret (never mind in public) without immediately having your betraying body scream the fact to all and sundry if red wine is your tipple of choice. Why my teeth, lips and tongue suck up red wine like sponges is anyone’s guess. I tell anyone who asks (and lots of people do – black teeth aren’t something that can easily be ignored in up-close-and-personal conversation) that it’s because I was overly concerned with dental hygiene in my youth and had my enamel ferociously scraped too often by a super-enthusiastic dentist – but then how does that explain why my lips and tongue go black too? I’ve never had them deep-cleaned.

I Googled ‘black teeth’ (and ‘purple teeth’ too, because apparently some sufferers of this affliction prefer to labour under the illusion that their teeth turn a comparatively attractive shade of dark mauve rather than just plain ole nasteh black) and found nothing of use. Some people say it’s the tannins in red wine that do it – but then why do I drink one glass and immediately resemble The Creature From The Black Lagoon, while my housemate Dean and one of my two sisters can polish off a couple of bottles and still proudly display a full set of sparkly-white choppers? (The Indestructible Wife, incidentally, also has Black Teeth Syndrome, and I love her for it.)

Having a black tongue is just scary – and its alternative name, ‘hairy tongue’, is enough to make anyone put a cork in the red-wine bottle for good. I have caused early-morning pandemonium in my house before when I’ve wandered into the bathroom after a night of revelry, stuck my tongue out at myself in the mirror, and let out a terrified scream. Don’t bodily parts turn black just before they fall off?

I found an interesting entry here that put one person’s black tongue down to rinsing with a clove-based mouthwash. (Stranger things have happened, I suppose.)

And it can’t be genetic – because if it were, the three sisters you see in the pic at left, smiling closed-lipped at the camera, would surely all suffer from the same condition? But no: in the 'black teeth' edition (below, taken especially to illustrate this point - if you're feeling particularly strong, you can click on the pic for an up-close-and-personal squiz), I (on the left) have it spectacularly badly - even in the non-toothy pic you can see a tell-tale dark stain along my lips; my baby sister (on the right) suffers it in a modest way; and our middle sister (in, as it happens, the middle of the pic) doesn’t have it at all. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Do your teeth turn black when you drink red wine? Do you have any theories as to why they do and your partner’s (or friend’s or brother’s) don’t? What do you tell people when you’re talking to them and they point and say, ‘Um, I think you’ve got something stuck in your teeth… all your teeth?’

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Warning: smog! Uh… where?

Here’s a very puzzling road sign I saw and snapped this weekend on a trip to the far reaches of the southern Cape to attend a birthday party. ‘Smog’, for anyone who’s in doubt about the term, is used to describe a kind of air pollution usually created by emissions from motor vehicles and industry to form a kind of smoky fog.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Smog can form in almost any climate where industries or cities release large amounts of air pollution.’ It often hangs around for extended periods, especially over densely populated urban areas and big cities like London, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Athens and Beijing.

The term ‘smog’ was coined by one Dr Henry Antoine Des Voeux in 1905, who said modestly that it ‘required no science’ to see that there was something produced in big cities that was not found in the country – to wit, smoky fog, which he called ‘smog’.

Why, then, is this sign posted alongside a country road several hundred miles from the nearest big city? As is perfectly evident from the pictures, the visibility in this area is so good you can practically see tomorrow.

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Monday, 6 April 2009

Problem is, it just could be true

The National Skirt Extension Project will doubtless soon reveal itself to be a horrendously expensive marketing ploy.

But it’s also served to highlight what dwang ordinary South Africans are really in: given the nonsense we live with every day, it’s becoming very hard to identify irony.

When I first saw the half-page ad for the National Skirt Extension Project in the Sunday Times, I turned the page, automatically dismissing it as a marketing exercise. But after I’d read Andrew Donaldson’s column in the same issue, I turned back to the ad and read it more closely.

In his column, Andrew quoted extensively from an article that appeared in the UK’s Daily Mail last week: ‘Imagine how you would react if Gordon Brown opened and closed his election rallies by bursting into a song called ‘‘Bring Me My Machine Gun’’, swaying and jigging to the hypnotic chorus of this menacing ditty. And how would you feel if the Prime Minister were alleged to be taking campaign money from Colonel Gaddafi; faced 783 counts of fraud, racketeering, tax evasion and corruption which somehow never came to court; and had been acquitted of rape while his fearsome supporters mobbed the courthouse?’

Given that that’s all true, I had to wonder if the ad urging ‘all South Africans’ to replace ‘non-compliant Ladies' Toilet signs’ with one bearing a longer skirt might be genuine.

Of course not! But wait… our president-to-be, writes the Daily Mail’s Peter Hitchens, has ‘at least four wives and 18 children’; asked about how he would cope with the First Lady issue, he said, ‘There is no First Lady. If there is an occasion, one day we will have the wife we are with, another day we will have another one.’ He once spoke of how he would knock down any ‘pansy boy’ and has denounced same-sex marriage as a ‘disgrace to the nation’; he ‘has hinted he might restore the death penalty; he is keen on traditional medicine men; he thinks teenage unwed mothers should have their babies taken away, that school prayers should be compulsory and that there is too much sex on TV’.

You’ve got to wonder, really, which scenario is more ridiculous: Jacob Zuma being our next President, or restaurant owners being compelled by law to change their ‘Ladies’ Toilet’ signs.

* Chris McEvoy writes about this here.

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Friday, 3 April 2009

Guess what Jamie Oliver's daughter's new name is?

I've just picked up a tweet from celeb chef Jamie Oliver, whose third baby daughter has arrived. And her name is... well, hold a sec, let me first remind you that his first two daughters are called Poppy Honey and Daisy Boo. So I suppose it's only logical that the third one would be called...

Petal Blossom Rainbow Oliver.


A respectable effort for someone who once had a slip of the tongue and called Angelina Jolie's baby 'Piloh Shitt'.

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A bird in the hand

Spurwinged geese, which can weigh up to 10kg and have a wingspan of 1.8 metres, are the largest waterfowl gamebirds in South Africa. They’re considered by hunters to be excellent trophy birds not only for their impressive size but also because they’re very alert and clever, and are hard to bring down.

I’m not a hunting fan by any stretch of the imagination, but many of the farmers who live in these parts are. Most of them hunt for the pot (rather than for trophies), but when a friend of my Dad’s, Frikkie, managed to kill a spurwinged goose, he didn’t know what to do with it. Here’s how my Dad tells it.

Frikkie is the local fixer. He knows a little about a lot of things. He can fix a leaking roof in the winter and an airconditioning unit when the temperature’s 42°C in the shade. And there are some who say that Frikkie, who wears a sleeveless T-shirt that shows off his ‘Ons vir you’ tattoo of the Voortrekker monument, has also been known to fix a few bored housewives, merry widows and adventurous divorcees – sort of leg-overtime at no extra charge.

When he’s not watching the Boland Kavaliers, Frikkie’s idea of relaxation is to get in his bakkie and hare off into the veld where he has a plot and a pondokkie that belonged to his great-grandfather. No electricity or piped water here; just candles, storm lanterns, a big fire and stream water so cold it takes the enamel off your teeth.

There, Frikkie and his mates do some shooting. Mostly they go after gamebirds – guineafowl, quail, francolin; enough for the pot, to go with the braai steak and wors and mealies. And then they break out the brandy and Coke and talk a lot of skinder and kak as they feed the fire with mopane logs and the sparks swirl so high they seem to be reaching for the stars.

After one of these forays, Frikkie turned up at my house. ‘Hey, colonial boy,’ he said. ‘I’m back from the veld and I’ve got a present for you.’

I could see he was weaving just a little as he climbed from his bakkie and, over my garden fence, handed me what seemed like a small, dead ostrich.

‘What’s this?’ I asked.

‘It’s a spurwinged goose,’ Frikkie slurred. ‘Me and my mates had an argument and I said if anyone could cook a spurwinged goose, it’s die ou rooinek. That’s you.’

Maybe he'd shot it by mistake but he certainly didn’t know what the hell to do with it.

I plucked it, trimmed it and cleaned it until it was looking like a not-very-pretty, oversized turkey. For a day I hung it in a branch of the camphor tree outside my cottage. Then I marinated it for another day in buttermilk, in the largest potjie-pot I could find.

I invited Frikkie and his wife to dinner and Frikkie’s wife said that it was the best thing I could have done. Frikkie had Klapmuts Guts (the local version of Delhi Belly) for two days and she doubted he’d set his sights on spurwinged geese again.

But Frikkie had the last word. ‘The problem is you didn’t do it the Afrikaner way,’ he told me. ‘You get the goose and put it in the potjie with a big, smooth stone. Then you cook it and cook it. Then you throw away the goose and eat the stone.’

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Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Check out my hot housemate

My housemate, Dean, might strike you, on first meeting him, as self-effacing and maybe even shy.


Here he is, naked as the day he was born, in this year's Riebeek Valley calendar.

He also makes wine.

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‘Too drunk to say no’ spoils it for the rest of us

There was a story in the Sunday Times last weekend about a 44-year-old UK woman (an attorney, nogal) who had sex with a 26-year-old man (a chef) and then accused him of rape because, having consumed ‘about three bottles of wine’ and become so intoxicated that she ‘could not remember anything’, she deemed herself too drunk to have consented.

I was particularly interested in the fact that, despite her hopeless inebriation, she’d been able to walk upstairs (to her bedroom) unaided, help the youngster remove her clothes and ‘perform a sex act’ on him. (I just love that phraseology: ‘perform a sex act’ – doesn’t it make you think of trapeze artists?)

Women – and by that I mean me – have fought long and hard for the right to have one-night stands in as willy-nilly a fashion as men. (And that doesn’t mean I do have one-night stands willy-nilly; it just means I can if I want to.) And then along comes this 44-year-old attorney who drinks herself blind, invites a relatively attractive (judging by his pic) young chef back to her place and has sex with him – and then, for reasons that are not explained, shouts ‘rape’.

Peter Bacon – for that is the young man’s name – told the press, ‘I was aiming to try to get a one-night stand legitimately and then have breakfast in the morning and go our separate ways.’

There are many things about that that appeal to me. ‘Legitimately’, for one. Peter, well over the age of consent, was invited to the woman’s house; she (ditto re age/consent) flirted with him; the only other person present left, but the woman didn’t ask Peter to follow suit; they began kissing; then they had sex. Sounds perfectly legitimate to me.

‘Have breakfast in the morning’ I also like. This wasn’t a man who was going to grab a quick shag and then escape, furtive and ashamed, under cover of darkness. A slap-up breakfast shared by two party people (who may or may not have had drunken sex the night before) is a well-known and long-respected hangover stopgap. Lasting and/or interesting bonds have been forged over this singular meal consumed in this singular mindset.

Interestingly, the unnamed (why? and please don’t tell me it’s because she’s a woman) 44-year-old attorney admitted to being a ‘recreational binge drinker’. This would lead me to assume that drinking enough wine to eradicate her memory wasn’t an experience that was entirely foreign to her. If I were Peter, I’d be asking myself how often she’d done this circus-act before; and I’d be deeply regretting not using a condom.

I’ve always been irritated by people who commit acts of wanton selfishness, destruction, stupidity or cruelty and then claim diminished responsibility by dint of drunkenness. When you neck a bottle or three of wine, you know what you’re letting yourself in for – and that goes especially for ‘recreational binge drinkers’ (self-confessed or otherwise).

If you can’t take the heat, as the old saying goes, stay out of the kitchen. And if you can’t take the consequences, stay off the bottle. That way, you won’t scare away attractive youngsters who might otherwise want to have legitimate one-night stands with us 44-year-olds – and make us breakfast in the morning.

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Straight-to-DVD movies should go straight in the bin

Living in a small town an hour’s drive from the nearest cinema, we rely heavily on our local DVD-rental store for entertainment. And I don’t know what’s happened to the choice of movies available for hire recently, but a bigger load of dross I have seldom seen.

It’s rare that a movie is so bad I can hardly believe it. ‘Bad’ movies can still be fun – you can still enjoy them. ‘Resident Evil’ (which I blogged in May 2008) was one such.

Movies that are so abysmally awful that all you can do is sit gobsmacked on the sofa, chortling embarrassedly now and again, but mainly wondering why you aren’t doing something more worthwhile, like reading a book or opening your veins, aren’t that common.

My bad run kicked off with a Lindsay Lohan ‘vehicle’ (as I believe the jargon has it) called I Know Who Killed Me. This astonishing piece of crap won not one, not two, not three… hell, EIGHT Golden Raspberry awards – including the first-ever award in a new category, ‘Worst Excuse for a Horror Movie’. Of course, we didn’t know this when we took it off the shelf and paid good money to watch it – but an hour into it, when we were practically hysterical with mirthful disbelief, we realised we’d been well and truly had.

The next was called The Boston Strangler: The Untold Story. The original 1968 movie, starring the inimitable Tony Curtis, was deemed by the New York Times to represent ‘an incredible collapse of taste, judgment, decency, prose, insight, journalism and movie technique’. This one, featuring the singularly charmless David Faustino, whom South Africans might remember as the nerdy, creepy little brother in the US sitcom Married… With Children (and he couldn’t act in that either), is – believe it or not – worse. Reviewer Ray Justavick called it ‘a steaming pile of shit’ on

He was right on the flush button. How can you possibly take seriously a movie in which, within the first few scenes, you see a dead woman blink - twice! Every single thing about this movie, from its eye-poppingly appalling acting and its devastatingly dreadful script, to its laughable continuity and high-school-production-like attempts to create ‘atmosphere’, screams DUD! And yet we unwittingly forked out Twenty Ront for the highly questionable privilege of sitting through it. (Okay, halfway through it. Okay, a quarter of the way.)

Next was a Kiefer Sutherland job called Mirrors. In this Kiefer (who shares his actor-father’s penchant for choosing terrible movies to appear in, but sadly lacks Donald’s so-ugly-he’s-gorgeous appeal) plays a traumatised ex-cop who does night duty as a security guard in a burnt-out department store and is haunted by… actually, who cares. It’s one thing to put every horror-movie cliché in the book into a movie, it’s quite another to do it so badly that it inadvertently becomes a parody of itself.

Mark H Harris, reviewing the movie for Horror & Suspense Movies, wonders how this one – a remake, apparently, of a Japanese original – could have gone ‘so very, very wrong’. He mentions the lack of logic and the ‘horrible dialogue’, and concludes, ‘The unnecessary, tacked-on ‘‘twist’’ ending is the fetid cherry atop this hammy sundae. During the final 20 campy minutes, it almost veers into ‘‘so bad it’s good’’ territory. Almost.’

Movies are really expensive to make. And, once a wrap’s been called and it’s realised that for all the millions of dollars that have been spent, the movie absolutely does not make the grade (and, really, I’m talking grade 0 here), it’s we poor suckers on the DVD-rental circuit who end up involuntarily allowing the backers to claim back some of their outlay.

How dare they? This kind of crud should never make its way onto any screen. And those responsible for the ones that do should be made to sit through repeated viewings of I Know Who Killed Me, The Boston Strangler: The Untold Story and Mirrors until they go insane. The good news for them is that it probably won’t take long.

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